A bit of fun with some local knowledge – these are ten things I do weekly in Britain that I wouldn’t have done in Uruguay…
1- Fill up the tank. Oh, no. Definitely not. This is something someone else would have done for me. I would have stopped at a petrol station and got my windscreen nicely cleaned and my tank filled for me. Labour is cheaper in South America and this sort of service is expected.
2- Pack my own bags. Similar to the first example, someone will pack your bags at the supermarket. Again, labour is cheap so retailers can afford this service.
3- Be asked “would you like a bag?” When relatives visit, this is one that confuses them. They bought something (fairly bulky sometimes) and they are expecting it in a bag. When the question comes, they look puzzled and whisper “how does she expect me to take it home?” (the options of having a reusable bag with you or just taking it in its own packaging seem rather challenging). I hear that environmental awareness in the UK is low compared to countries such as Sweden, but it is definitely higher than in most of South America, although things are quickly changing and younger people are pushing the agenda.
4- Expect a present NOT to be wrapped for me. You buy a present in a shop and the shop assistant will surely say “shall I gift-wrap it for you?” – and that means at no extra cost. If you go to Spain, have a go at asking. And gift-wrapping can get rather elaborate, too. The way you present a gift means a lot and is commented upon. I have now developed a gift-wrapping hobby in the UK – a skill I would have probably not developed in Uruguay…
5- Spell out my name. This is something I do here almost every day. However, my name would be very straightforward to spell for any Spanish-speaker. And having to explain that I don’t have a double-barrelled surname but two surnames is something that in South America and Spain I definitely wouldn’t have to do. My first surname is my father’s surname, the second one is my mother’s. As simple as that…
6- Explain that my “maiden name” is the same as my “name”. In Uruguay, when women get married, they don’t change their surname. Call us liberal, but that’s how it is (it is not the same in other South American countries). My husband has been addressed as “Mr Castro-Fontoura” many times, which makes him laugh (his surname is Smith, if you are wondering!).
7- Fill in an “equal opportunities monitoring form”. Never had to do one in Uruguay. Equal opportunities is a new agenda, but a different one from that of the UK. The country is much more homogeneous in terms of race and religion, for example (which is not the case in other more demographically diverse countries in South America). The traditional British form with its “ethnic categories” always confuses me. You will find that “Hispanic” would be a category in the US, but not here. The vast majority of South Americans are of Spanish or Italian ascent, would you call that “White”, “Other”, “Mixed”? Confusing.
8- Go out in the rain. Well, here I’ve had to embrace it. It rains and life goes on. Last time I was in Uruguay, a friend called me just an hour before meeting up to ask “are we still meeting?” I was struggling to think for a reason why we wouldn’t, so I asked. “Well, I was wondering” – she said – “because it’s raining”…
9- Have a curry. My first unforgettable encounter with Indian food was in Durham (and so was the first time I had avocados and mangoes, believe it or not). Uruguay has a strong European tradition and you will find Spanish, French, Italian, Swiss and German restaurants, for example. You can also find American and Chinese restaurants and there are a few places serving Latin cuisine, such as Mexican. But no Indian restaurants. Can you imagine?!
10- Travel by train. The last time I took a train in Uruguay was 30 years ago. Passenger rail travel is almost non-existent. Cars and coaches are relied upon often. People don’t travel that much within the country, with the exception of travelling to Montevideo to get your paperwork done if you live somewhere else in the country – decentralisation doesn’t seem to be the word of the moment… Can you imagine if you had to travel to London every time you had to renew your passport, apply for a business licence or find foreign currency? (with the exception of dollars and Euros, which are more easily found across the country, but you will struggle to find sterling outside Montevideo – I know from experience!).
I hope you have enjoyed these snippets of information. I always insist that business is about people – and understanding these subtleties can mean a lot when you want to business with South Americans. So if you are thinking of taking the train to your next meeting in Montevideo, having a curry with your business partner or arranging a meeting for a day with torrential rain, think again!
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